Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What does the novel help us understand about the nature of survival and the uncertainty of what lies ahead? How is Charlotte transformed after the novel’s opening scene, which depicts an ordinary, comfortable day but is followed by waves of unexpected loss?
2. As Charlotte reflects on her time as a schoolgirl, with memories of Vanessa and Elena, what aspects of her true self shine through? As a spirited, resilient young woman, how did she pose a threat to her father, Charles Richmond, MP?
3. Though Eddie is part of the backstory, he is a central character in the novel. What impressions of him did you form? How did he shape Charlotte’s image of a good man? How did their mother make an indelible impression that sustained Charlotte throughout the traumas of loss and abuse?
4. As with Jo Baker’s bestseller Longbourn (which delivers a servant’s perspective on the Pride and Prejudice household), money and class propel the storyline in The Midnight News. What does Charlotte gain by having to work for her possessions and sustenance? How does the kindness of Mrs. Callaghan and Mr. Gibbons compare to the luxury of Longwood? What does a college degree signify to Tom, beyond an education?
5. What does Clive mean to Charlotte? Does she experience healthy sexual freedom with him, or is she harmed by this connection? How does her perception of the Hartwell family (including their seemingly perfect house) shift as she confronts reality?
6. The novel is written in the present tense, interlaced with commentary attributed to the deceased. How do these two techniques enhance the experience of seeing the world through Charlotte’s eyes? What do the ghostly conversations in Charlotte’s mind tell us about her own conscience?
7. Men are the powerbrokers in the novel, from the vicar (who makes it impossible for Janet to have a social life outside of his orbit) to Charlotte’s psychiatrists. Yet The Midnight News is replete with strong women, including Lady Saskia Bowers and Mary Clarke. What does it take for the novel’s female characters to establish even a modicum of autonomy? How would you have fared as a woman in that time and place?
8. What were your theories about the identity of the Shadow Man? Does the truth about him echo or contrast with the novel’s epigraph from Elizabeth Bowen: “. . . the wicked had stayed and the good had gone . . .”?
9. Had you heard of insulin shock therapy before you read the novel? What might have happened to Charlotte if she hadn’t been sprung? In what ways did her psychiatric care damage her mental state? What is her greatest source of clarity and healing?
10. What did you learn about the Ministry of Information and British intelligence during the war by watching Charlotte and Janet at work? What do you believe are the root causes of Charlotte’s shortcomings as an employee?
11. What makes Charlotte and Tom kindred spirits? What limitations and aspirations do they share? What does it take for them to ultimately be liberated?
12. As you watched Charlotte and her fellow Londoners try to maintain normalcy while drawing the shades and huddling together in shelters, did any parallels to the recent pandemic come to mind? What is the cultural legacy of the Blitz and its horrors?
13. Discuss The Midnight News as part of the spectrum of Jo Baker’s other novels that you have read. What makes her approach to historical fiction especially compelling? In what ways does fiction sometimes convey historical fact more effectively than nonfiction does?
Suggested ReadingShrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
The Heat of the Day and The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
The Corpse at the Crystal Palace by Carola Dunn
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson (nonfiction)
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene
The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin
Sisters of Night and Fog by Erika Robuck
A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith
Painted Shadow: The Life of Vivienne Eliot by Carole Seymour-Jones (nonfiction)
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters